Soon fades the spell, soon comes the night…

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Lord Macaulay’s Critical and Historical Essays, published in the 1892 edition.

Does the man who wrote this of James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland, deserve to be remembered:

She [Elizabeth] died; and the kingdom passed to one who was, in his own opinion, the greatest master of king-craft that ever lived, but who was, in truth, one of those kings whom God seems to send for the express purpose of hastening revolutions?

Should we hold dear somewhere in our collective heart a man of whom it was written:

He combined so vivid an imagination with so solid a judgement, that if he had not been a great historian he might have passed down to posterity as a great poet; and whilst the amount of his intellectual welath would have overwhelmed a mind of less original power, with him it remained subordinate to the genius of the master?

Is there a place in the Zeitgeist for someone described, six years after his death,  thus:

He was a classic who had come out of romanticism, and who used the fire of the romantic school not as a fire is used by an incendiary, but as it is used in a forge?

To which, of course, the answer is a resounding ‘Aye!’ As to the question does history owe a debt of honour to a man described by The Times in October 1839, following his promotion to the post of Minister for War, as Mr. Babbletongue; or, in the words of Henry Brougham, co-founder in 1802 of  The Edinburgh Review:

…the greatest bore that ever yet appeared?

The answer is an equally resounding ‘Naw, it disnae!”

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Lord Macualay 1800-1859. Source: Wikipedia

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Lord Macualay 1800-1859.
Source: Wikipedia

Buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, at the feet of Thomas Addison, the Critical and Historical Essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, are no longer handed out as prizes as they were to the Plymouth shipwright apprentices in July, 1884. (Rear Admiral Herbert had scathing words for those apprentices who had not used their six years in the shipyards to prepare fully for their exams – as always it seemed to be the fault of a small group of idle students leading their companions astray. G.T.Chivers was not one of these. He walked away with British Battles (3 vols),  Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (3 vols) as well as Macaulay’s Essays)

Macaulay’s failure to stand the test of time rose, in part from being dead, but also from having written using, what was to be called by later historians, the Whig theory of history. The term was made famous by Herbert Butterfield in his 1931 essay The Whig Interpretation of History. Of the Whig historians, he wrote

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present.

Macaulay is mentioned only twice in the essay but having written in his own Essays:

The history of England is emphatically the history of progress,

it is clear that from where he stood (a short, stout man he may as well have stayed sitting) in the England of first half of the nineteenth century, an unbroken line ran from the defenders of parliamentary rights in the reign of Charles 1st to, well, himself. From our viewpoint  (sitting or standing) in the 21st century, our view obscured by world wars, industrial depression and financial crises, it is difficult perhaps to accept unquestioningly the use of that word “emphatically.”

But history is nothing if not ironic. A quick search of Ngram shows how much his fame has faded:

Down, down and deeper down.

However, search for the Whig interpretation of history and hey presto:

Well, well, well.

Apart from a dip in the late 1930s when the British government’s policy of appeasement towards Hitler was emphatically not a sign of progress, the Whig interpretation of history continues to be studied and written about. But Macaulay, for all his wonderful prose, is not read. For that reason, the loneliness which comes with being among those that have read him, an equally lonely (5,8) is plotted.

The loneliness of the long distance reader.

Next time, Trollope, Framley Parsonage and interactive tithe maps. Oh yes.

Leave a comment


  1. As usual, I have learned something very interesting! This time, not just about history, but about ‘Ngrams’ – Colin, I have never heared of these, and am immediately fascinated. Of course I tried ‘middlebrow’, and it confirmed what I had concluded – that use of the term and all the cultural prejudices contained within really took off post WWII. The graph starts to climb post 1950 and then has another growth at the end of the period, towards 2000 – perhaps the rise of the modern bookclubs and the beginning of academic interest?

    • Looking at the sources for the results of the later period, a lot seem to be American – “America the Middlebrow: Fiction and Liberal Politics 1920-1940” for example. I thought there would have been more British sources. No surprises to see in the 1950s Russell Lynes’ “The Tastemakers” near the top of the list!

  2. Ngrams are fun! But only useful if you are fully aware of your data sources: ‘Google’ is not enough.

    Colin, I wonder if the slight rise in Macaulay mentions in the 1920s and 1930s is due to his great-granddaughter Rose Macaulay’s increasing fame and appearances in the public prints as a novelist, journalist and reviewer?

    • I checked and all the sources cited for the 1920s and 30s are either books on Lord Macaulay or mention him. There was nothing on Rose Macaulay. However, I do agree Ngram does have to be approached with some care.

  3. the greatest bore that ever yet appeared–ouch!

    I remember his name in my historiography classes, but haven’t read him.

    • They minced no words, didn’t they? Even someone unread today, such as Macaulay, can carry an aura of greatness. So it’s interesting to come across contemporary accounts that hold the opposite view. I have to say I enjoyed his style and confidence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: